A WORD, PLEASE:

People often ask novelists: Where do you get your ideas? They do not ask this of columnists. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it's because, deep down, they know that, since the average novelist openly admits he doesn't know where he gets one idea every couple of years, it's cruel to ask a columnist how she comes up with one every week. Or perhaps, on some level, people sense that the question could tap a vein of desperation that reveals the disturbing similarities between columnists and junkies: “Where do I get my ideas? Why? You got any? Are you holding? What'll they cost me? I'll do anything.” Or, quite possibly, people just don't find columnists very interesting.

My money is on that last option. Yet there comes a time in every columnist's life when the most interesting idea she can come up with is how she has no ideas and how, on a recent Thursday, she turned to a colleague and asked: “Got any ideas for my grammar column?”

Josh, the colleague in question, did. “Maybe you could write about the origin of the word 'gerund.'” (Translation: “What's it going to take to get you off my back?”)

This leads us to an important pointer for taking advice — any advice: Always filter out all the words you don't want to hear. If that means that you hear only one word of an entire sentence, so be it. For example, if you know nothing about word origins, you might answer: “Gerunds! That's a great idea! I'll do a column about gerunds!”

So welcome to my column on gerunds.

Gerunds are verbs — “ing” verbs, specifically — that have sort of bluffed their way into jobs as nouns.

Look at the sentence, “Jane is thinking.” We have a noun, Jane, followed by a verb. The verb, which is conjugated in a tense called the present progressive, is made up of an auxiliary, “is,” and a participle, “thinking.” Together, they describe an action. And that's what verbs are supposed to do.

Now look at the sentence, “Thinking is hard.” Here, “thinking” is not part of the verb. “Thinking” is actually the subject of the sentence. It's functioning just like a noun, performing the action in the sentence whose only verb is “is.”

The most important thing to know about gerunds is that, sometimes, they can be a clue that a sentence isn't as interesting as it could be. That's because often what makes a sentence interesting is its action. And when you have a gerund, you've taken a word that might have served as the action of your sentence and made it a static noun instead. As we saw in the example above, sentences headed by gerunds often have a form of “to be” as their main verb. And doing is often more interesting that being.

Don't shy away from using gerunds when they serve you. Just consider whether you have any better options. “Running daily is good exercise, and it's how Sue stays in shape” could be more interesting rewritten “Sue runs every day, and she's in great shape.”

Gerunds are part of a larger group called verbals. According to the website “The Tongue United,” a verbal is “the form of a verb used as a noun, adjective or adverb.” Besides gerunds, the group includes participles, which usually function as adjectives. Think of words like “stunned,” “overworked,” “wrought” and “stinking.” And it also includes infinitives, which can act as adjectives, adverbs and especially nouns: “To run out of ideas is human. To forgive is divine.”


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.” You can reach her at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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